Ken Burns’ latest documentary, The Dust Bowl, will air on PBS this November. It will tell a uniquely American tragedy: small-time hardworking people, whose very dedication wrought their destruction.
And seeing it in all its newfound glory, I’m reminded of the age-old recipe for documentary success: show misery, then triumph.
Laypeople and film critics alike are human. And humans like seeing others suffer. We feel great about ourselves when 1) we feel pity for those less fortunate, and 2) we compare favorably against others.
Ken Burns is just one great documentarian who has used this tactic to his advantage. (His other documentaries include Lewis & Clark and a multi-episode series on the American Civil War.)
Show Misery, Then Triumph
So how can you make your own successful documentary? (Or at least, make your most educated try?) Easy.
1. Familiar Topic
Choose a topic most people have a passing familiarity with. We may not know the whole story of impoverished Chilean rural children, say, but we remember the trapped miners from 2010 so we’re vaguely familiar. That’s enough to get us watching the trailer.
2. Grabby Trailer
Give us lots of emotion. Hold back your absolute best stuff, but show 75% to hook us. Draw out the tragedy in the first minute, then draw out the challenges preventing your subjects from fixing it. Do you have weeping children? Put them front and center.
3. Tragic Misfortune
Not negotiable. A blockbuster documentary needs tragic, undeserved trauma. Best if the victims include cute animals or innocent, big-eyed children.
4. Righteous, Feel-Good Wrap
You’ve brought us to the edge. Now give us some hope for humanity as we pack up our popcorn boxes. Does a rescue organization swoop in? Maybe the citizens even rise to the challenge and get the government to act. Whatever happens, include numbers and statistics in a closing slide.
5. And Wrap!
Use requisite melancholy, ponderous, yet subtly uplifting music. Ka-ching!